Monday, January 08, 2007

Science, Or Group-think?

Michael Crichton gave a speech in January of 2003, at the California Institute of technology, entitled "Aliens Cause Global Warming" which was so good I had to pass it on, despite the fact that it's three years old--an eternity in Internet years. He addresses the religious aspect of modern science--where science stands when "scientific" claims are based on consensus, rather than proof--and what happens when public policy is based on such shaky conclusions.

His speech takes us through an incomplete, but fascinating, history of the last two hundred years, or so, and how faulty conclusions by the majority have held back advances in scientific and medical knowledge, which, in the end, consistent scientific test results proved to be true. (It took 125 years for consensus to accept that the fever which used to kill off one in six women, after childbirth, was infectious in nature, something which one forward-thinking scientist proposed in 1795. A few other mavericks supported his conclusion, and showed the fever was both contagious and preventable through sanitary measures, but the consensus opinion denied this truth for more than a century.)

Crichton explains how "consensus" and "science" are mutually exclusive terms, and how the acceptance of consensus as a substitute for proof has led to the recent widespread adoption of questionable theories as fact, which in reality either do not hold up to scientific scrutiny, or have not received the scrutiny that science demands. Why the lack of adequate scrutiny? Crichton says this is because of science being too intertwined with public policy, and the nature of scientific funding, with research dollars too often coming from organizations that are driven by specific agendas, and looking for specific outcomes. Some examples he gives of such widely accepted, but unproven and questionable, theories include Nuclear Winter, Second-hand Smoke as a Group A Carcinogen, and the always pressing global issue of Global Warming. Crichton also offers some suggestions for how science, and scientists, can move away from the consensus method of drawing conclusions and back toward the scientific method. The speech is long, but jam-packed. I really recommend this one.

Note: I would love to give a hat tip for this, but I got the link off of a comment on another blog, and can't for the life of me remember where. My abject apologies to the offended commenter. I repent in sackcloth and ashes.